It's that time again! The Supreme Court of the United States is back deciding cases (they've been hearing them for a little while yet). The early decisions of the term tend to be less controversial, at least within the Court itself; everything announced so far was unanimous with the odd concurrence.

I'll also note that the Court is currently at 8 members rather than the currently-typical 9, and that it has been 268 days as of this writing since Merrick Garland was nominated without any action from the Senate. Keep up the good work, guys!

The Court announced three cases earlier this week, plus two additional ones earlier in the term (one each in October and November). Again, there's not going to be anything Earth-shattering here, as they tend to leave those for the end of the term (so we'll see those this summer). But this stuff still has real precedental value, and every one of these becomes a part of U.S. law.

And now, on with the show.

Bosse v. Oklahoma (October 11, 2016), per curiam. Full opinion.

This case involves an Eighth Amendment issue regarding what evidence can be submitted at the sentencing phase of a criminal trial where the death penalty may be imposed. Specifically, the question is whether so-called "victim impact" evidence may be used by the prosecution in its case to a jury that the defendant should be sentenced to death.

In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that victim impact evidence that does not "relate directly to the circumstances of the crime" cannot be used at trial. Booth v. Maryland, 482 U.S. 496, 507 (1987). Four years later, this case was partially overruled. In Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808 (1991), the Court held that Booth was wrong as it relates to "'victim impact' evidence relating to the personal characteristics of the victim and the emotional impact of the crimes on the victim's family." On the other hand, it left untouched Booth's additional prohibition on allowing family members of victims to talk about their opinions on the crime, the defendant, or what they think the sentence should be. In other words, after Payne, the family members of murder victim could talk about what the loss of their loved one means to them, but couldn't say that they think the defendant should die, or that the crime itself was awful, or whatever.

Now we come to the current case. Bosse was convicted for the murder of a woman and her two children in 2010. At the sentencing portion of the trial (so after Bosse was found guilty), the prosecution asked the three family members who testified to recommend a sentence to the jury, and all three recommended death. The jury then imposed the death penalty. Bosse appealed to a state appellate court, who concluded that Payne "implicitly overruled that portion of Booth regarding characterizations of the defendant and the opinions of the sentence."

The Supreme Court took the case to basically smack down the Oklahoma state court. The justices went to great pains to remind the lower court that only the Supreme Court can overrule its own precedent, and that this holds true "regardless of whether subsequent cases have raised doubts about their continuing vitality." In other words, lower courts can't try to figure out whether the Supreme Court may be leaning towards overruling an earlier case, but have to wait for the Court to specifically do so. Bosse's sentence was overturned, and the case was sent back. It's worth noting that Bosse isn't necessarily off death row for good; the Supreme Court said that the lower courts can still look at whether this impermissible testimony actually had an impact on the jury's sentencing determination.

Bravo-Fernandez v. United States (November 29, 2016). Justice Ginsburg writing for a unanimous court, with a concurrence filed by Justice Thomas. Full opinion.

Now we have a case that delves into the arcana of Double Jeopardy. By way of background, the Constitution (specifically the Fifth Amendment) says that no one can be "subject for the same offence [sic] to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb." One of the ways this gets tricky, though, is figuring out when someone has been charged twice for the same offense. If two criminal statutes overlap somewhat, at what point does charging the second one mean the Double Jeopardy clause has been violated? One way of figuring this out is the so-called "issue preclusion" test. Under this metric, someone cannot be tried a second time based on an issue of fact or law that has already been adjudicated.

The foundational case on this is Ashe v. Swenson, 397 U.S. 436 (1970). This case involved the robbery of six players at a poker game. Ashe was charged with robbing one of them only, but was acquitted by the jury. He was then charged with robbing a different player at the game, but the prosecution was able to bring more evidence this time and Ashe was found guilty. He appealed, and the Supreme Court found that the question at both trials was whether Ashe had been the one who robbed the poker game, since he couldn't have robbed one without being the one who robbed all of them. But since this issue had already been decided by the jury's acquittal, he couldn't be tried again for what amounts to the same issue. The burden for proving that issue preclusion applies is on the defendant. Then in 1984, the Court ruled in United States v. Powell, 469 U.S. 57, that this burden can't be met where a jury returns logically inconsistent results, since we have no way of knowing which decision was the jury's "true" one. The Court would later say that this doesn't apply where a jury acquits on one count but can't reach a verdict on another. Yeager v. United States, 557 U.S. 110 (2009).

Bravo-Fernandez and another defendant were charged with bribery, conspiracy to commit bribery, and traveling in interstate commerce to commit bribery. At trial, defendants conceded that they had acted together and that they had traveled in furtherance of their actions, but disputed that what they did was considered bribery. Strangely, the jury acquitted them on the conspiracy and traveling charges, but convicted them of bribery. While such a logically inconsistent verdict isn't a problem in and of itself, it does have implications should we get into Double Jeopardy territory. In this case, Bravo-Fernandez and his cohort appealed their conviction, and a Court of Appeals threw out the verdict on other grounds (finding that the jury was given improper instructions). The prosecution then sought to re-try Bravo-Fernandez, who in turn argued that Double Jeopardy should apply.

In general, re-prosecutions after the defendant wins on appeal are okay (this is seen as "continuing jeopardy" rather than double jeopardy). Bravo-Fernandez argued that the jury's verdict necessarily meant that they found that they didn't commit bribery, since all 3 charges have a single underlying issue. The main issue in this case is whether the Court of Appeals' axing their conviction for a procedural issue changes the calculus, and SCOTUS says that it doesn't. The underlying question of whether the jury actually decided that Bravo-Fernandez didn't commit bribery cannot be resolved since their original verdict was not logical, and so issue preclusion doesn't apply.

Justice Thomas wrote a concurrence for the sole purpose, as far as I can tell, of complaining that Yeager and Ashe were wrongly decided and should be reconsidered "in an appropriate case."

State Farm Fire & Casualty Co. v. United States ex rel. Rigsby, et al. (December 6, 2016). Justice Kennedy writing for a unanimous court. Full opinion

This case is narrow, and involves a fairly obscure issue and area (but of course could have effects on others).

There's a federal law known as the False Claims Act. This allows private parties to sue someone who has made a false or fraudulent payment claim to the U.S. government (it also allows the Attorney General to join those suits or bring them on his/her own). The idea is that by giving private parties an incentive to do this work for the government (they can get a portion of the ultimate award), it'll help the government fight these kinds of false claims.

The Rigsbys filed one of these claims against State Farm. They alleged that while they were working for a State Farm contractor after Hurricane Katrina, they were told to falsely reclassify wind damage as flood damage. This in turn would mean some of the damage would be paid by the federal government, who backs flood insurance policies. Part of the procedures of the False Claims Act is that the initial complaint must be filed under seal, and can't be served on the defendants right away. Through various things happening after the initial filing, the seal was broken.

State Farm asked the district court to dismiss the case. The courts (including SCOTUS) said no, that there's nothing in the relevant statutes that says that violating the seal rule warrants complete dismissal of the case. State Farm didn't ask for anything lesser (like monetary penalties), and so this question wasn't addressed.

Salman v. United States (December 6, 2016). Justice Alito writing for a unanimous court. Full opinion.

Now it's time for some insider trading. Hooray!

The law at issue here prohibits anyone from using inside information to benefit themselves. In addition, someone who receives that information while knowing that they shouldn't have it acquires the same prohibition, and cannot use that information for personal benefit without committing securities fraud. The Court had previously ruled that the recipient's liability in turn depends on whether the tipper disclosed that information "for personal benefit." In other words, if the tipper (the person who disclosed information they shouldn't have disclosed) gets some personal benefit out of the disclosure, that means the recipient is also liable (if they use that information for themselves).

Salman received some insider information from someone who in turn received it from his brother. So the question is whether the original source of the information (the brother) disclosed the information for personal benefit, which would in turn make anyone who received it liable. Salman argued that he did not, since there's no evidence the brother himself traded on the information. However, the Court had previously found that

    when an insider makes a gift of confidential information to a trading relative or friend . . . [t]he tip and trade resemble trading by the insider himself followed by a gift of the profits to the recipient.

In other words, there's no difference for these purposes between someone using insider information to earn money that they then give to a relative (clearly a personal benefit) and just giving the relative the information to use themselves for profit.

Samsung Electronics Corp. v. Apple (December 6, 2016). Jutice Sotomayor writing for a unanimous court. Full opinion.

We have here another chapter in the years-long litigation between Samsung and Apple over smartphones. Apple sued (successfully), saying that Samsung had violated various patents on things like a device with a "black rectangular front face with rounded corners" and "a grid of 16 colorful icons on a black screen."

Under the Patent Act, anyone who makes or sells “any article of manufacture to which [a patented] design or colorable imitation has been applied shall be liable to the owner to the extent of his total profits" from the offending good. A jury had previously awarded Apple the sum of $399 million, which represented Samsung's entire profits from the offending smartphones.

However, it's never quite so simple. The question before the Court on this one is what, exactly, is meant by "article of manufacture." With something that's a single component (the Court uses a dinner plate as an example), this is obvious, but with something like a smartphone? After all, it's made up of numerous other components. The lower court (the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit) concluded that the entire phone was an "article of manufacture," since Samsung did not sell pieces of phones, but only the whole thing.

The Supreme Court reversed, finding that this was not consistent with the Patent Act. The Patent Act defines an article of manufacture as simply something made by hand or machine. Plus, U.S. patent law allows design patents, which have always been found to apply to portions of a product rather than the whole thing.

The parties didn't discuss in their breifing or argument how this would play out in the present circumstances, and the Court kept its holding narrow. So now the case goes back to the lower courts to determine whether the whole phone was the "article of manufacture" for the purposes of the patent, or just the individual patented pieces. I have no doubt this'll be dragging out for a good bit longer.


That's it for this week! As always, feedback and questions are both welcome, and I hope you enjoyed it.

posted 1144 days ago